Cinematic Pleasures: Aren't You Even Going to Kiss Me Goodbye?
by j.d. lafrance
Every once in awhile you hear about how a Hollywood studio tried to sabotage one of their big budget efforts when it came in conflict with the film’s director and their vision. Case in point: Dune (1984) and Brazil (1985). However, studios also mess with small, independent films because they have much more leverage in which to bully the filmmaker. This is exactly what happened to William Richert’s adaptation of his autobiographical novel, Aren’t You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye?, first published in 1963 when the author was 19-years-old. It was subsequently manipulated by 20th Century Fox from a serious film for adults into a sex comedy for teenagers and called A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988). Richert has resurrected his original cut and is releasing it through his own personal website to finally set the record straight, letting people decide which version of the film they prefer.
The 1980s saw several nostalgic stories of adult protagonists looking back at their misspent youth. Some, like Stand By Me (1986), were well-received. Others, like Stealing Home (1988), were not. Richert’s original film is definitely in the same vein as these motion pictures with a voiceover narration by the protagonist as an adult, reminiscing about a pivotal moment in his life spent in Evanston, Illinois. Johnny Mathis’ original song, “I’m Not Afraid to Say Goodbye,” plays hauntingly over the opening credits with a shot of a lonely janitor sweeping an elevated train platform. The film is set in 1962 Chicago and concerns a 17-year-old teenager named Jimmy Reardon (River Phoenix) who is trying to get money for college. He enlists the help of his best friend Fred (Matthew Perry).
Jimmy fancies himself a poet of the beatnik variety and is something of a shrewd-ish Lothario, making the moves on a college girl intended for Fred. Jimmy hangs out with wealthy teenagers definitely on the snobby side with too much time on their hands. He is also in conflict with his parents who want him to either go to an all-boys business school or stay at home – not a great choice for a teenager with a raging libido.
Jimmy has a girlfriend (sort of) named Lisa (Meredith Salenger) who likes to make-out with him but doesn’t like it to go much beyond that. They see other people but are obviously strongly attracted to each other. She is scared of losing control of herself around him and succumbing to his charms. Meredith Salenger is adorable as Lisa and I remember having a big crush on her character as a teen watching the film when it first came out. She has an innocent vulnerability that is endearing and sexy. She also has genuine chemistry with her co-star, River Phoenix. Their first scene together has a playful, sexual tension to it that has a ring of honesty for anyone who’s tried to make it with a girl like that. There’s an adolescent awkwardness that is authentic. Unfortunately, the studio version of the film played the sexual episodes for laughs and cheapened them with hit tunes from the ‘60s but this new cut has Elmer Bernstein’s original, elegant score playing over Jimmy and Lisa’s first encounter.
When Jimmy finds out that Lisa is going to college in Hawaii, he sees this as his way out of Evanston. All he needs is $88 for a plane ticket. Jimmy meets one of his mother’s friends, a sophisticated woman named Joyce (a surprisingly sexy Ann Magnuson) and she invites him for a drink at her place. She’s a seductive, independent woman who turns the tables on Jimmy, making all the first moves instead of him being the aggressor and this obviously appeals to him after having to do all the work with Lisa. It’s amazing what a difference music makes to a scene as Bernstein’s smoky jazz that plays over the seduction scene between Jimmy and Joyce gives it genuine heat where the studio cut played it much lighter in tone. Ann Magnuson, with her sexy, long legs and short red hair, resembles a young Shirley MacLaine except more alluring – she’s infinitely more interesting than the bland Lisa and you can see why Jimmy is attracted to her.
The omission of Richert’s narration in the studio cut makes Jimmy a more unlikable character. Its presence in this new version not only gives the film a more literary feel, but also puts us inside Jimmy’s head, providing motivation for what he does in the film and how he feels about it now, after all these years. His fatal character flaw is that he’s controlled by his libido and it gets him into all kinds of trouble. Lisa has romantic aspirations while all he wants to do is have sex with her. This was Phoenix’s first starring role and he is excellent as the contradictory Jimmy. His character writes poetry and yet he lacks sensitivity and empathy towards others. Phoenix expertly conveys Jimmy’s conflicted nature: the intelligent poet and the self-destructive womanizer.
A new scene included in this director’s cut has Jimmy showing compassion for his friend Suzie (Louanne) and also lost in a nightmarish part of Chicago that plays out like a condensed version of After Hours (1985). Louanne plays Suzie, the sarcastic best friend role, and the most interesting woman in Jimmy’s life. She’s funny, honest and not afraid to tell it like it is. If Jimmy was smart, he would go out with her. Louanne has little screen-time but she makes every moment count.
William Richert finished principal photography on his film in 1986 and after editing it, he screened the motion picture for Island Pictures, the financial backers. According to Richert, they liked it so much that it was felt that the film could succeed beyond the art house circuit. While filming, Phoenix had become a popular teen idol with the success of Stand By Me, which definitely played a factor in the decision to go for a wider release. Cary Brokaw was the original producer and financier of the film at Island only to be replaced by Russell Schwartz who took away Brokaw’s executive producer credit while simultaneously selling the distribution rights to 20th Century Fox. The film had a score composed by the great Elmer Bernstein, a new song performed by Johnny Mathis, and an original, end-credit song written and performed by River Phoenix – all of which were removed and replaced by the studio.
Fox decided to do a new advertising campaign. Richert says that he liked the existing campaign and did not want to delay the film’s release. Richert also claims that Schwartz told him that Island was filing for bankruptcy and had to sell the rights to Fox. Studio President Leonard Goldberg screened a copy of the film and felt that it had the wrong “tone” and was a “downer.” According to Richert, Goldberg told him that he was going to screen it for the publicity and marketing team to get their recommendations. Marketing Chief Cynthia Wick, the publicists and Goldberg called Schwartz and told him to get rid of Richert’s narration, Bernstein’s score, and turn it into what Richert cites as a “teen exploitation picture.” He says that they told him that Bernstein’s score was old-fashioned and would be a turn-off to audiences. They replaced it with a new score by Bill Conti and bunch of songs from the ‘60s.
According to Richert, the publicity division spent two years making changes and during this time, Phoenix had garnered great acclaim in films like Stand By Me and The Mosquito Coast (1986) The director claims that the young actor’s agent and mother told him not to talk to much about Jimmy Reardon to the press. For example, at the time of the film’s release, Phoenix told the Globe and Mail newspaper that, “morally, I have problems with it,” and that the motion picture, “wasn’t meant to be a teenage film.” His parents also wanted Richert to remove the line, “Jimmy, I want to fuck you,” that Joyce says to Jimmy as she seduces him. According to the director, they were worried that it would offend their son’s fans. Richert argued that his fans wouldn’t be allowed in theaters because of the film’s rating and that the line was integral to the film. Phoenix’s parents said that they would not allow their son to promote the film with the line in it and Richert finally agreed to silence the line but not remove it. He thought that this would appease them but the actor’s mother still refused to have her son do interviews for the film.
Schwartz wanted to replace Richert’s narration with the actor son of Phoenix’s agent, but after hearing his voice on the phone, Richert asked Phoenix to do it and he agreed. The director defends his narration as being “designed to sound like the older novelist I was, remembering his youth...having an older voice provided a frame for River’s performance.” Richert remembers being invited, along with Island executives, to a screening room at Fox where a movie soundtrack expert presented various songs from the ‘60s that would be used in the film. Richert says that he was shocked and angered. Afterwards, he wrote an angry letter to executives at Fox. Richert claims that Chris Blackwell, owner of Island Pictures, called and told him not to protest in public or write any more letters as the studio would cancel the theatrical release and send it straight to video. However, if Richert played ball, Blackwell would keep the director’s version out of the Fox contract and he could release it after five years. Richert agreed and worked with the studio in an attempt to salvage his vision for two agonizing years.
The marketing department changed the name of the film to A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon because they claimed that nobody had ever heard of anyone named, “Jimmy Reardon.” Fox decided not to screen the film for critics in advance, which is generally perceived as a lack of faith the studio has in the film. According to Richert, Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times called the studio and insisted on seeing the film. When she was denied, she got a copy from someone at Island and gave it a positive review. Richert claims that Fox tried to discredit Benson and in response, she wrote an even more positive article. After the opening weekend, a Times reporter interviewed Richert and Fox delayed the article and then killed it.
Jimmy Reardon was not well-received by several mainstream critics, including the Washington Post which wrote, “This is a case where the voice of the writer and the unexpectedness of the details he’s collected allow you to overlook the shoddy mechanics – even to consider them as part of the movie’s odd appeal.” Janet Maslin, in the New York Times, wrote that Richert “has done what he can to make this a more or less conventional coming-of-age story. In that he fails miserably, since conventionality is not his strong suit.” However, Rick Groen in the Globe and Mail praised Richert’s casting choices as “subtle as everything else in this intricate picture...Phoenix seems like a pint-sized Mickey Rourke, aping his elders.”
Aren’t You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye? exposes the class struggle that exists in the United States. Jimmy comes from a blue collar family and hangs out with teenagers from an affluent neighborhood in Chicago. Lisa thinks its “cute” when Jimmy takes her to the No Exit, a Beatnik café, because she is slumming. For him, it’s a place where he can recite his poetry. She is going to a rich college in an exotic place (Hawaii) while he is going to a mundane business school that his father also went to. Jimmy’s rich friends never have to worry about money and don’t have a care in the world while Jimmy spends the entire film hustling for $88. Initially, he fits seamlessly with this crowd but as the film progresses, he gradually drifts away from them until his big confrontation with Lisa where he exposes her as a hypocrite and a phony right out of a J.D. Salinger story while also reconnecting with his hard-working father.
In the end, Richert went along with all of the studio’s changes so that his film would at least receive a theatrical release but in doing so gave the world a compromised version of his film that was very different than the one he had originally made. Fortunately, his version has now seen the light of the day and is available for anyone to see. Bernstein’s score and Richert’s original voiceover narration completely changes the tone and feel of the film, giving it a much more wistful, melancholic tone instead of the annoying teen sex romp vibe of the studio cut. Aren’t You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye? is a smart, engaging film filled with excellent performances by the entire cast under the rock solid direction of Richert who has crafted an excellent ode to a specific period in his past.
For more on the film, check out Richert’s official website: http://www.williamrichert.com/id2.html